Starting a Project the Right Way

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Workshops are an easy way to get projects off to the right start, which is one of the many reasons why BlueFletch encourages these engagements.

If setup and run correctly, these sessions can reveal the client’s needs, business goals, and written assumptions, while also allowing your team to better determine the cost, effort, and risks of a project. Ultimately, the goal of a workshop is to define the project roadmap and help stakeholders move from uncertainty to certainty.

Sure, there are some scenarios where a workshop may not be necessary; for example, if you have worked with a client before, know their working style and have clear documentation of the project goals, a workshop session may not be the best use of everyone’s time. However, if you’re working with a prospective or new client, workshops should strongly be encouraged. If a workshop doesn’t take place, you run the risk of misconstruing project objectives, scope and deliverables, slowing down a project (you can cover in one workshop what you might cover in 5 shorter meetings), missing an opportunity to showcase your team’s expertise and thought leadership, and most importantly – getting into business with a client that doesn’t jibe with your company’s principles and culture.

If conducted properly, workshops can bring a high level of clarity into the conversation, enabling you to understand the project requirements, functional specifications, content modeling, solution architecture, and so on. But to run an effective workshop, a degree of preparation and strategy is required beforehand.

Here’s some key points to consider leading up, during, and after the workshop:

Research the client, their brand, product and competitors

  • What is the company background?
  • Who are their main competitors and how are they different?
  • What existing technology does the company have?
  • What do the employee or customer reviews say?

From my experience, it goes a long way when you do research before a meeting. The client usually respects and appreciates that you did your homework, and you’ll have a jumpstart on understanding their language and problems they’re trying to solve.

bluefletch workshopPlan an agenda

….but be flexible. Go into the meeting knowing your agenda may change on the fly or even be disregarded, especially as conversations and topics will likely evolve in the moment. Be sure to stay tuned into what is/isn’t working with the client. For example – are the responding better to visual materials, or do they prefer just talking through things? Or if you sense they’re distracted, how can you regain their attention?

  • Put together an agenda to make the most of your allotted time, but realize it may be modified in the moment
  • Prepare a list of thought-starter questions (avoid simple yes or no questions, but instead try to draw out information that is more comprehensive)
  • Break up the sessions so attendees retain attention and enthusiasm. If the client has a good handle on their business needs, a half-day session should suffice
  • Send materials to the client ahead of time so they can prepare in advance
  • Start with the end in mind. Set and voice clear goals at the beginning of a workshop and identify the main questions you want answered

Conduct the workshop session in person (if possible)

Face-to-face interaction is pivotal at the beginning of a project – here are some reasons why:

  • Research has found that people are more likely to remember information and think creatively when they are in a foreign environment
  • Less temptation for people to multi-task (blackberry syndrome)
  • Easier to establish rapport, build trust and empathize
  • Observe the organization’s environment, team disposition and governance
  • Ability to read body language; facial expressions, hand gestures, and voice tones often provide more clues to the listener than words themselves
  • Get a sense of the client’s working style & communication preferences
  • Can empower yourself to be more persuasive

Get the right people in the room

Having the workshop in person is important, but what’s even more critical is making sure the right stakeholders are in the room.

Often people jump into projects with a tremendous amount of assumptions, but you can reduce the chances of this occurring by having key decision makers present and engaged in the conversation from the start. If they’re not able to join, reschedule. Having an absent stakeholder can potentially endanger the entire project, as it often it results in missed requirements or scope creep.

Similarly, it’s important that you bring the right resources from your team. You want to ensure you have an appropriate mix of professionals and expertise in the room so that you can tap into a variety of areas. Usually, that includes a Project Manager, Solutions Architect, Designer, and Business Analyst. Since a lot of new information will be shared during this meeting, appoint someone from your team as a designated note-taker to ensure key takeaways and action items are documented.

Ask the right questions

Although there isn’t a standard set of questions that can be used for every client workshop, there are fundamental topics that should be covered and further discussed. Below are some suggested areas and example questions I’ve crafted that can be used as a guide to expand on:

Team Roles / Project Governance

  • What is your role at the company?
  • What would be your role on the project?
  • Who shall be the main point of contact for all communication during the project execution?
  • What is the preferred communication mode? What tools will be used to collaborate?
  • What will be the change request process?
  • How will we effectively manage the project team and the stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle?

Strategy / Project Goals

  • Why are we here?
  • What does your team hope to accomplish at the end of this engagement?
  • What are the key user story drivers?
  • How will you measure project success?
  • How shall we actively evaluate the success of the project?
  • How does this project stack up against competition?
  • What are your department’s top priorities for this quarter? For this fiscal year?
  • How would this project take part in the company roadmap?
  • What is the project timeline?
  • What information and documentation do you currently have?
  • What are the project constraints? Is there anything that would prevent the project from being successful (i.e. schedule/availability, budget, hidden stakeholders, etc.)?
  • Has the project been tried before? What worked and didn’t work? Why did it fail?

User Experience / User Interface

  • Who are the users or target audience?
  • What is working well? What are the current challenges or pain points?
  • What devices will the application be supporting?
  • What are the expected use cases?
  • What are the style guidelines? Do brand assets exist?
  • How rigid is the existing style guide? Is there any flexibility?

Technical

  • What level of security check or compliance is required? Encryption?
  • Is there a legacy system that needs to be integrated?
  • Where are the current databases located?
  • Where will the solution be hosted?
  • What is the preferred development framework?

Recap takeaways and next steps

Before the meeting comes to an end, it’s important to review key takeaways, address any outstanding questions or action items, and firm up next steps so the project can progress accordingly. Make sure that all promised outputs are delivered.

Post workshop planning

Following the workshop, it’s important to debrief your project team to ensure everyone is aligned on the client and requested tasks. This is usually a good time for the team to consider the project’s risks and uncertainties. Risk assessment should be an ongoing process throughout the duration of a project, but it’s important that your team discusses potential risks in the planning phases to help prepare for risk mitigation. You and your colleagues might conclude that the project and/or client isn’t a good fit, and therefore isn’t worth proceeding with. Often you can identify potential red flags by how the stakeholders act and communicate during a workshop. Here are some things to make note of:

-Do they show up on time to the meeting?

-Do they listen and act respectfully towards one another?

-Can they clearly define their own target market?

-Are they able to convey how the company defines success on the project?

-Is the project timeline realistic? Do they have an accurate understanding of cost?

-How passionate are they about the project?

-How well do they respond to feedback?

-Were they receptive to your project approach (i.e. agile/waterfall method, change requests, etc.)

As a strategic consultant to the client, workshops are an easy way to ensure a better understanding and smoother collaboration ahead. Although each workshop session will be unique, there are overarching strategies and procedures that should be considering leading up, during, and following the workshop for it to be successful. And even though they may require additional time, effort, and resources, the payoff will be well worth it. For more information on scheduling a BlueFletch mobile strategy workshop click here.

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